From the moment I first heard Kang Chol-hwan's story of childhood imprisonment in a concentration camp, I knew I had to do something to expose the staggering crimes against humanity taking place in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the DPRK). The idea of the existence of concentration camps in today's world was simply unacceptable. I started by trying to make a dramatic feature based on Kang's story, but in 2006, I decided to transform the film into a documentary. The interviews were mind-boggling. I developed the deepest respect for these survivors rebuilding their lives, but willing to share their painful pasts. At the same time, another story began to emerge - a cautionary tale of an entire nation held captive by mass repression and forced cult worship.
Since there is almost no pertinent footage from inside the DPRK, I searched for new ways to present this powerful material. Drawing on my background in the theatre, I wove performance into the narrative for its emotional impact, and North Korea's own operatic propaganda for its fantastic contrast to the defectors' testimony. The result is a film that may push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, but hopefully never diminishes the tremendous emotional power of these courageous refugees.
North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations. For sixty years, North Koreans have been governed by a totalitarian regime that controls all information entering and leaving the country. A cult of personality surrounds its two recent leaders: first, Kim Il Sung, and now his son, Kim Jong Il. For Kim Jong Il's 46th birthday, a hybrid red begonia named kimjongilia was created, symbolizing wisdom, love, justice, and peace. The film draws its name from the rarefied flower and reveals the extraordinary stories told by survivors of North Korea's vast prison camps, of devastating famine, and of every kind of repression. All of the interviews featured took place in South Korea, where the defectors now live. Their experiences are interspersed with archival footage of North Korean propaganda films and original scenes that illuminate the contours of daily life for a people whose every action is monitored and whose every thought could bring official retribution. Along with the survivors' stories, Kimjongilia examines the mass illusion possible under totalitarianism and the human rights abuses required to maintain that illusion. Ultimately, the defectors are inspiring, for despite the extremes they have suffered, they still hold out hope for a better future.
At the turn of the century, the Japanese "annexed" Korea and proceeded with a violent colonization program. Christian missionaries, who had already established themselves in Korea during the 19th century, aided Korean freedom fighters. In those days, most Korean elite were educated at missionary schools and professed the Protestant faith. Kim Il Sung's grandfather was a Protestant minister, and Kim Il Sung was a devout Christian who used to play organ for church services. The young Kim began his first organizing activities within the church. As resisters, his family had fled the Japanese and taken up residence in China. Kim Il Sung joined a band of resisters as a teenager, and by 1932 had adopted communism. He led skirmishes against the Japanese, until they began hunting him down, at which point he fled to the Soviet Union. With the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, Korea was free, but the Cold War jockeying began for the so-called Zones of Influence. The Soviets and the US agreed to free elections, but the Soviets reneged. Kim Il Sung established a Marxist state in the North in 1948. He convinced Stalin that he could sweep through South Korea and reunite the country under communism. The North attacked the South in 1950, and unleashed a bloody, destructive war that engaged the UN, led by the US for the South, and the Soviets and then the Chinese for the North. After three years of fighting, both sides were back to the 38th parallel dividing line established by the US and USSR at Yalta. This has become the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. No peace treaty has ever been signed. Kim Il Sung began to establish his Workers' Paradise thereafter, based on Stalinist practice and his own original philosophy of Juche, roughly translated as self-reliance.